AW101 Merlins for Nigeria in VVIP configuration

The Nigerian Air Force has taken delivery of a pair of VIP-configured AgustaWestland AW101 Mk 641 helicopters. The first was delivered to Nigeria as NAF280 on 30 September 2014, and the second (as NAF281) on 21 November 2014.
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The AW101-600 series features a range of avionics and performance changes compared to earlier variants, and AgustaWestland is promoting the new type as being ideally suited for emerging VVIP, long-range oil and gas, and search and rescue requirements. Sharing a common cockpit architecture with the three members of AgustaWestland’s civil ‘helicopter family’ (including the AW139, AW169 and AW189) the AW101-600 enjoys the largest cabin in its class and has unmatched stand-up head room, as well as the latest in vibration reduction technology and excellent safety features. The AW101 can carry about one third more passengers than the rival Sikorsky S-92, and AgustaWestland is believed to be working to obtain full civil certification for the General Electric CT7-engined 600 series aircraft.

Already popular for VVIP and Head of State transport roles (ordered by Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Turkmenistan for VIP operations), the aircraft’s appeal would only be enhanced by full civil certification.

Nigeria’s two aircraft are part of a cancelled Indian Air Force order for twelve AW101 Mk 641 helicopters, four UTI utility aircraft for transporting members of the Indian government Special Protection Group (SPG), and eight in full VVIP fit for carrying senior government officials. Three of the first six aircraft were delivered to India in December 2012, and the other three were retained in the UK for training, until early 2013, when a corruption scandal emerged (this was perhaps invariably dubbed ‘Choppergate’ in the Indian press). This led to the arrest and eventual imprisonment of Giuseppe Orsi, the CEO of Finmeccanica, AgustaWestland's parent company and a number of other senior personnel. Following an investigation by Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony, the contract was cancelled, and India recovered the money that had been paid to the Anglo-Italian company – which amounted to roughly half of the overall contract value.

AgustaWestland has naturally sought to minimize its losses, and has worked hard to use and sell the undelivered aircraft, though the eventual fate of the three aircraft delivered to India remains uncertain.

Of the nine undelivered aircraft from the Indian order, one has been used as a demonstrator by AgustaWestland, including transporting the British Prime Minister David Cameron and the UK delegation during the two day NATO Summit earlier this year. Two more have been assigned to Azerbaijan, and two have now been delivered to Nigeria.

The aircraft are believed to be assigned to 101 Presidential Air Fleet at Abuja/Nnamdi Azikiwe airport, where they augment a smaller AW139 helicopter and a disparate fleet of fixed wing types, including Nigeria’s own ‘Air Force One’, a Boeing 737-7N6. Some reports, however, suggest that the aircraft actually joined the co-located 209 Executive Airlift Group.

Interestingly, the new AW101s wear Nigerian Air Force military serials, whereas many of the Fleet’s VIP aircraft wear Nigerian civilian 5N- registrations. This may indicate that the aircraft are expected to fulfill more of a military communications and senior officer transport role, or that they will be equipped with high-end military defensive systems, including DIRCM (Directional Infrared Countermeasures) and countermeasures dispensers.

AgustaWestland will no doubt be hoping that use of the aircraft in the VVIP role might encourage the Nigerian Air Force to consider adopting other versions of the type to meet outstanding attack/assault and maritime helicopter requirements.

The AW101 ‘Surveillance and Intervention’ variant developed to meet Algerian Gendarmerie Nationale requirements, with its ability to carry rocket pods and an EO/FLIR turret, would seem to fit Nigerian requirements well, meeting the frequently stated need for every aircraft to be capable of ISTAR and attack in order to successfully engage and defeat fleeting insurgent targets.

The Nigerian Air Force already operates six Agusta A109 LUH helicopters (of seven delivered in 2010), while the Nigerian Navy’s Air Arm has seven Agusta A109 E Powers.




PICTURED: An AW101 for VVIP duties is popular with heads of state around the world